National News

Fighting the Prejudice

2014-10-29 13:12:30 mjankovitz
The American Studies Association’s 2014 annual meeting, to be held  Nov. 6-9 at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel (pictured) in Los Angeles,  has garnered criticism for a policy  of excluding Israeli academics.

The American Studies Association’s 2014 annual meeting, to be held Nov. 6-9 at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel (pictured) in Los Angeles, has garnered criticism for a policy of excluding Israeli academics. Magnus Manske via Wikimedia Commons

About a year after the American Studies Association’s (ASA) widely condemned vote to endorse a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, the organization’s policy on Israel is receiving renewed scrutiny over a practical application of that vote.

The ASA’s 2014 annual meeting, to be held Nov. 6-9 at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles, has garnered criticism for a stated policy of excluding Israeli academics. In December 2013, a resolution passed in a vote among the 5,000-member ASA, the oldest and largest association devoted to the interdisciplinary study of American culture and history, marked the group’s initial foray into an Israel boycott. That vote was publicly criticized by more than 200 university presidents.

According to the ASA’s Frequently Asked Questions webpage, the organization’s current boycott of Israel “targets institutions and their representatives, not individual scholars, students or cultural workers who will be able to participate in the ASA conference or give public lectures at campuses, provided they are not expressly serving as representatives or ambassadors of those institutions (such as deans, rectors, presidents, etc.), or of the Israeli government.”

Yet, the distinction between a “representative,” “ambassador” or “scholar who is affiliated with an Israeli academic institution” is a vague one.

In at least one letter, addressed to the administration at the University of California, San Diego, the ASA said that it meant “deans, rectors, presidents and others” in the explanation of its policy, the Times of Israel reported.

After the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) civil rights group contacted the Westin with a letter informing the hotel that the ASA policy regarding its conference could violate the state of California’s civil rights laws, the ASA amended its policy with the addition that “in accordance with the ëyes’ answer immediately above, Israeli academics will be in attendance at the 2014 convention. The ASA will not prohibit anyone from registering or participating in its annual conference.”

John Stephens, the ASA’s executive director, responded to the ACLJ that the organization “does not bar Israelis, it does not bar Israeli institutions. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can attend [the Los Angeles conference] if he wants to.”

The ASA has since issued a formal statement that reports of its exclusion of Israeli academics from the conference are “erroneous.”

Upon further examination of the ASA conference program, the gathering’s participants do include at least three Israelis: Ben-Gurion University of the Negev’s Neve Godon and Ahmad Sa’di, both of whom critical of Israel, and Mohammed Wattad of Zefat College School of Law, an Arab academic who in the past has spoken out against a boycott against Israel and the classification of Israel as an “apartheid state.”

“There will not be discrimination of any sort against anyone [at the conference],” the ASA statement said. “We welcome Israeli academics to attend, and in fact, several are already scheduled to participate in the conference program. Subsequent reports also stated, erroneously, that the ASA had changed our policy regarding support for the academic boycott. We have not. Last year, after careful consideration by its membership, the ASA overwhelmingly endorsed an academic boycott to call attention to the violations of academic freedoms and human rights of Palestinian scholars and students by Israel. This limited action means simply that the ASA on an institutional level will not engage in collaborative projects with Israeli research institutions, and will not speak at Israeli
academic institutions.”

Yet, Eugene Kontorovich, a professor at Northwestern University School of Law, argued in an Oct. 18 article for the Washington Post, “Even the [ASA’s] belated claim to waive the boycott for the annual conference would not pre-empt legal liability. Academic conferences are organized, scheduled and registered months in advance. The discriminatory effects of their policy have already been realized.”

Additionally, the fact that the ASA’s boycott policy “was selectively not enforced” for the Los Angeles gathering “does not mean [the policy] was not otherwise enforced,” wrote Kontorovich, who mentioned Wattad’s inclusion in the conference but not that of the two other participating Israeli academics, Godon and Sa’di.

“Having adopted their boycott to much public fanfare, they (ASA) want to be able to quietly deny it — when it suits them,” Kontorovich wrote.

Pro-Israel groups, meanwhile, have been mobilizing on the ASA conference issue. The Israel Project (TIP) issued an action alert email, calling on its supporters to tell the Westin that “playing host to bigots is unacceptable.”

“Otherwise Westin Resorts, in violation of California’s anti-discrimination laws, will rent the rooms while the ASA keeps Israelis out of them,” stated the TIP action alert. “No other country is being subjected to this exclusionary bigotry.”

Samantha Rose Mandeles, editor-in-chief of CAMERAonCampus.org for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, said that the “recent backtracking and dishonesty by the ASA is not surprising” and represents “another example of the dis-ingenuousness that characterizes BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) efforts as a whole.”

“As is common for BDS supporters, the ASA did not honor their own boycott policy — they invited several Israelis to participate in the conference, showing that, yet again, Israel BDSers will only abide by their own injunctions when it suits their needs,” she said. “BDS proponents will claim to boycott Israel, but actually only do so half-heartedly, when it is convenient and part of symbolic, theatrical gestures that have no effect on the conflict.”

Roz Rothstein, CEO of the Israel education group StandWithUs, said that “clearly the ASA cannot even clarify its own newfound bigotry against
Israeli Academics and institutions.”

“Thankfully, the ACLJ has forced the issue into the open and placed ASA in this position where they cannot defend themselves, because there is no defense,” Rothstein said.

“Time and again, when held up to practical reality, the boycott movement against Israel has proven to be incapable of sustaining itself. This shows how important it is for groups to align to fight the prejudice that the BDS movement represents.”

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Freundel Planned to Take More Female Towson Students on Tour

2014-10-23 17:52:21 mshapiro
Rabbi Barry Freundel (Courtesy Towson University)

Rabbi Barry Freundel (Courtesy Towson University)

A Towson University senior who is taking a class Rabbi Barry Freundel taught prior to his arrest said she and “a couple of other girls” were invited to tour his synagogue.

“I had never planned on doing the mikvah, but going to the synagogue sounded like a cool experience,” Karen Berry, who is a student in the “Judeo-Christian Perspectives in Medical Ethics” class, said Thursday afternoon outside the classroom.

Freundel was arrested on Oct. 14 for allegedly setting up a hidden camera disguised as a clock radio in the National Capital Mikvah, a Jewish ritual bath next door to his Washington, D.C., synagogue, Kesher Israel Congregation, in Georgetown. He is charged with six counts of voyeurism, to which he has pleaded not guilty. He is suspended without pay from his synagogue and suspended from all faculty responsibilities at Towson.

On Wednesday, the university began its own investigation into whether or not Freundel violated Title IX guidelines that pertain to sexual misconduct, university spokesman Ray Feldmann said. His office in the university’s liberal arts building was searched by police the previous day.

“There are parts of the Title IX law that pertain to sexual misconduct and behavior that creates what’s called an ‘impermissible hostile environment,’” explained Feldmann. A violation would mean Freundel’s actions interfered with a student’s ability to continue his or her education at Towson. “We’re certainly not accusing Dr. Freundel of having done these things, but we’re looking at whether or not he did.”

Feldmann said university officials felt they had enough reason to investigate Freundel based on information from students, which the university has been collecting since the arrest.

He said the university probably won’t make a decision on Freundel’s long-term status at Towson until both the Title IX investigation and the criminal investigation have concluded.

Berry said Freundel, who first started teaching at Towson in 2009 as a tenured professor, seemed knowledgeable.

“He was very prominent in the Jewish community so I figured he would be a good professor,” she said.

At least a half-dozen other students used the National Capital Mikvah during class trips, according to an unnamed woman who helped Freundel with the mikvah from late 2013 through May, The Washington Post reported. She wasn’t sure if students were recorded, but is afraid they might have been, she told the newspaper.

Another woman told The Post that she noticed a clock in the bath area as far back as 2012. According to reports, there was also a fan in the mikvah, and a manual for a fan with a hidden camera was found at Freundel’s home.

Nicole Coniglio, a senior mass communication major, told student newspaper The Towerlight that she toured the synagogue for a religious studies class she was taking with Freundel. While on the tour, she and other students were asked to shower in the mikveh, and while she declined, two of her Jewish classmates accepted.

Towerlight editor-in-chief Jonathan Munshaw, who is in the same class as Berry, said students came to class the day their professor was arrested and waited about 20 minutes before leaving.

“The arrest occurred in D.C., so even as a reporter, I was, frankly, behind the story,” Munshaw said. He wrote a piece later that afternoon, but since removed himself from reporting on further developments. He said the next class was “emotionally draining.”

That class resumed on Tuesday with Rabbi Avram Reisner of Chevrei Tzedek teaching.

“At the end, he just said, ‘This is obviously a very unfortunate situation. I’m very disappointed,’ and just opened the floor to everyone who wanted to share their thoughts,” Munshaw said of the new professor on Wednesday.

Reisner said that first day of teaching Freundel’s classes was somewhat difficult, but his job was to get things back on track academically.

“When I walked in, there was a little bit of discomfort among the students,” he acknowledged a day later. “Today, I’m teaching a normal class.”

Feldmann said that in addition to gathering information, the university is offering resources to those with questions or having difficulty processing what happened.

“A lot of students are very upset, feel like he was a good professor,” Feldmann said, “somebody they admired and looked up to.”

The university is also encouraging students who may have information that could aid in the police’s criminal investigation to report it to university police, who may then refer them to Washington, D.C., police.

“Anything Dr. Freundel is accused of doing in D.C., we don’t believe he did anything like that at Towson University,” Feldmann said.

While there have been no complaints against Freundel in the past — the university even looked at past student evaluations — and learning opportunities outside of class are encouraged, Feldmann said taking students to the mikvah was “where it would have crossed the line.”

“We encourage our faculty to create off-campus learning activities for our students,” he said. “The mikvah portion of a class trip is something we would not have condoned or sanctioned had we known about it.”

mshapiro@jewishtimes.com

Rabbi Barry Freundel (Courtesy Towson University)
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Freundel Took Towson Students to Mikveh

2014-10-22 22:01:41 mshapiro
Rabbi Barry Freundel (Courtesy Towson University)

Rabbi Barry Freundel (Courtesy Towson University)

A rabbi and Towson University professor who was arrested on Oct. 14 on voyeurism charges for allegedly setting up a hidden camera in a mikveh had at least two students take part in the bathing ritual, according to a former student.

Nicole Coniglio, a senior mass communication major, told student newspaper The Towerlight that she toured Kesher Israel Congregation in Georgetown for a religious studies class she was taking with Freundel. While on the tour, she and other students were asked to shower in the mikveh, and while she declined, two of her Jewish classmates accepted.

Freundel is accused of setting up a hidden camera disguised as a clock radio in the mikveh. He is suspended from all faculty responsibilities at Towson and suspended without pay from his synagogue.

Towerlight editor-in-chief Jonathan Munshaw, who was in Freundel’s honors seminar on Judeo-Christian medical ethics, said certain students were supposed to discuss a trip to Kesher Israel on the day Freundel was arrested, but the professor never showed up to class.

“The arrest occurred in D.C., so even as a reporter, I was, frankly, behind the story,” Munshaw said. He wrote a piece later that afternoon, but since removed himself from reporting on further developments. He said the next class was “emotionally draining.”

That class resumed on Tuesday with Rabbi Avram Reisner of Chevrei Tzedek teaching.

“At the end he just said ‘this is obviously a very unfortunate situation. I’m very disappointed’ and just opened the floor to everyone who wanted to share their thoughts,” Munshaw said of the new professor.

University spokesman Ray Feldmann said the university is currently gathering information from current and former students of Freundel and offering resources to those with questions or having difficulty processing what happened.

“A lot of students are very upset, feel like he was a good professor,” Feldmann said, “somebody they admired and looked up to.”

The university is also encouraging students who may have information that could aid in the police’s criminal investigation to report it to university police, who may then refer them to Washington, D.C., police.

“Anything Dr. Freundel is accused of doing in D.C., we don’t believe he did anything like that at Towson University,” Feldmann said.

Freundel started teaching at Towson in the fall of 2009 as a tenured professor, Feldmann said. At some point, the university will have to determine if that status will continue, he added.

While there have been no complaints against Freundel in the past – the university even looked at past student evaluations – and learning opportunities outside of class are encouraged, Feldmann said taking students to the mikveh was “where it would have crossed the line.”

“We encourage our faculty to create off-campus learning activities for our students,” he said. “The mikveh portion of a class trip is something we would not have condoned or sanctioned had we known about it.”

mshapiro@jewishtimes.com

Rabbi Barry Freundel (Courtesy Towson University)
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The Heat’s On

2014-10-22 16:42:52 ebrown
A now common sight in Southern California are dried-up rivers. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

A now common sight in Southern California are dried-up rivers.
(Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES — Devorah Brous’ San Fernando Valley home is shaded by green trees, studded with 19 fruit trees and patrolled by a pair of affable chickens that strut around the backyard. But at the moment, she is eager to show a visitor her dying lawn.

Comparing the withering grass with a thriving orange tree a few feet away, Brous, the founding executive director of the Jewish environmental organization Netiya, says, “It’s survival of the fittest.”

For Netiya — Hebrew for “planting” — and other Jewish environmental groups, California’s debilitating drought has tied together a number of issues that have been gaining prominence in the Jewish activist community: sustainability, social justice and ethically and environmentally responsible food production. Their efforts range in size and scope.

In San Diego, the local branch of Hazon had children paint rain barrels that will capture rainwater for irrigation as part of the environmental group’s Sukkot festivities.

Meanwhile, in Pescadero, south of San Francisco, the environmental education group Wilderness Torah hosted a panel discussion on water usage as part of its annual Sukkot on the Farm festival. After the panel, there was a ceremony based on an ancient Temple rite in which the high priest would draw water from the spring and offer it at the altar in hopes of bringing seasonal rains.

Participants circling around a fountain “bless the waters of the world and call in the rain,” said Suzannah Sosman, festivals manager for Wilderness Torah. Last year’s Sukkot festival came amid a downpour.

But the main thrust of the work of Jewish groups working on drought relief is water conservation, capture and reuse.

“I don’t think people are necessarily aware of how to save water other than turning off their faucets when they’re brushing their teeth,” Sosman said.

Netiya, which organizes religious communities to create sustainable gardens on underused institutional lands, has installed gardens at 11 congregations around Los Angeles, including at Ikar, where Brous’ sister, Sharon, is the founding rabbi. All the gardens include drip irrigation, a technique invented in Israel to conserve water during the irrigation process.

This summer, Netiya conducted a series of five workshops focused on water conservation and gardening.

Devorah Brous and her son play with one of their chickens. Brous always begins her workshops with relevant readings from the Torah. (Anthony Weiss)

Devorah Brous and her son play with one of their chickens. Brous always begins her workshops with relevant readings from the Torah.
(Anthony Weiss)

At a recent workshop, volunteers helped install a water-capture system that will disperse rainwater on the grounds of a Los Angeles church.

At another Netiya event, attendees helped put in place a greywater irrigation system at the home of Devorah Brous that recycles used water from her washing machine and funnels it to her herb garden.

“Every time I turn on the faucet, I’m thinking about all the water that’s not going back into my landscape,” Ashley Sullivan, who is Jewish and who attended the greywater installation, said. ”We use so much perfectly good water once, just rinsing our hands.”

For other organizations, water conservation is not simply a response to the drought but a perennial concern.

Urban Adamah, an urban farm and educational center in Berkeley, not only uses drip irrigation, but also began roughly a year ago to grow some of its plants using aquaponics, a system that utilizes 80 percent less water than conventional agriculture.

“Even though we’re in a drought now, we’re sort of in a perpetual state of drought in California,” said Adam Berman, the executive director of Urban Adamah. “Our mission is to teach sustainable agricultural practice, of which water conservation is a key part, even in good years.”

Brous, in turn, hopes to spark a broader conversation in the Jewish world about the relationship between food and the environment. In the process, she plans to reach out to Stewart and Judith Resnick, billionaire residents of Beverly Hills, in a bid to bring them into a conversation about food and resources.

The Resnicks are among the largest landowners in California’s Central Valley, as well as among the largest growers of water-intensive crops such as almonds, pistachios and pomegranates. (A request for comment placed with the Resnick-owned Roll Global Corp. was not returned.)

“Are these boutique perennial crops things that we should be growing in California, or should we grow something else?” Brous asks rhetorically. “There are questions we should be asking.”

Judaism originally grew out of the life of a desert people, and though much of Jewish life has long since moved into towns and cities, its foundational texts still speak of ethical principles for caring for land and water. Brous begins her workshops with relevant readings from the Torah, as well as the Koran and the Christian Bible, and she hopes that they can serve as the basis for a renewed Jewish conversation about water, food and environment.

“It’s still in the text,” she said. “It’s extraordinary spiritual soil to grow from.”

 

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Security Sweep

2014-10-22 16:37:25 ebrown
Despite Rabbi Barry Freundel’s alleged crime, the National Capital Mikvah did not close and remains fully operational. (ChameleonsEye/Shutterstock)

Despite Rabbi Barry Freundel’s alleged crime, the National Capital Mikvah did not close and remains fully operational. (ChameleonsEye/Shutterstock)

Washington, D.C.-area mikvahs are grappling with security concerns in the aftermath of Rabbi Barry Freundel’s highly publicized arrest on voyeurism charges. Freundel is accused of setting up a hidden camera in the shower room of the National Capital Mikvah in order to spy on women who changed there before taking the ritual plunge.

There are seven ritual baths in the Washington region, and they are responding in different ways to the shocking revelations. (Chabad Lubavitch Mikvah-Northern Virginia Region could not be reached for comment before press time.) The scene of the alleged crime — the National Capital Mikvah — never closed and is currently fully operational. However, director Sarah Barak says that major security precautions have already been implemented, and more are in the works.

The locks have been changed, the police have searched the mikvah to make sure there are no recording devices, an expert security firm is going to do a second search and a halachic expert will conduct a third security search and also ensure that the mikvah’s religious integrity is still intact.

The decision to keep the mikvah open was made after consulting with Rabbi Yitzchok Breitowitz, former rabbi of Woodside Synagogue in Silver Spring who now lives in Israel. Breitowitz said that the mikvah is still kosher and is fine to use.

The Mikvah Emunah Society of Greater Washington, which operates two ritual baths in Montgomery County — Wallerstein in Kemp Mill and Ballard Street in Woodside — is planning a security sweep at its Wallerstein location, and male volunteers no longer will be permitted to enter the mikvah without a female counterpart. Ballard is managed by women. Mikvah Emunah held two women-only events on Monday evening to address concerns and answer questions from the community.

James Mesis, a New Jersey-based private investigator, security specialist and editor-in-chief of Professional Investigator Magazine, says hidden cameras are increasingly harder to find because they can be as small as a period at the end of a sentence.

“You can hide a pinhole camera or the body of the camera behind anything, and you just need a tiny, tiny little hole that’s the size of a button-thread hole to be able to look through,” said Mesis. “So unless you have the right equipment to find these hidden cameras, you’d never find them.”

Freundel allegedly hid a camera inside a Dream Machine digital clock radio.

Rabbi Barry Freundel

Rabbi Barry Freundel
(Courtesy Towson University)

Mesis recommends hiring a professional Technical Surveillance Countermeasure (TSCM) technician. “Establishments, what they need to do — on a regular basis — is have a TSCM technician come in who’s been properly trained and is credentialed with the proper equipment and just do an inspection of all of the target locations,” said Mesis. “And what I tell people, wherever a person could be in the form of undress is an area where you want to search. You don’t really need to search anything other than areas where somebody is going to be undressed.”

But some mikvahs do not plan yet on hiring a professional security firm. A representative from Mikvah at the Jewish Family Center in Olney said there are no additional security arrangements in place yet. The mikvah is sporadically used, so it isn’t as urgent as some other facilities.

Mikvah at the Silver Spring Jewish Center does not plan to increase security.

Rabbi Herzel Kranz calls Freundel an “aberration,” adding that there is a “deficiency in this human being — a mishegas that goes through people’s heads.”

He doesn’t seemed concerned that Freundel’s behavior could be replicated at his mikvah.

“Are we lacking for pornography in the United States? Something is screwed up here. We are bringing holiness here, conversions,” he said. “There is no bigger contradiction than that.”

Adas Israel Community Mikvah in Cleveland Park, which welcomes more than 400 immersions per year and describes itself as the D.C. area’s only “progressive and pluralistic” mikvah, scheduled a security sweep immediately after hearing the news about Freundel’s arrest.

“The Adas Israel Community Mikvah remains in solidarity with every other mikvah affected by recent events while continuing to offer meaningful and secure experiences to the entire community,” said Naomi Malka, mikvah director and ritual coordinator.

Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan, director of Lubavitch of Maryland, said that Mikvah Ateres Yisroel in Potomac has had a longstanding policy that its mikvahs be operated exclusively by women for women, with a rabbi serving as the halachic authority. “Security is always a concern, and we review and upgrade the system from time to time as technology improves.

“The mikvah is one of the oldest and most important institutions in Jewish life,” said Kaplan, “and we are confident that despite the recent horrific episode, the institution of mikvah will continue the remarkable comeback it has made over the past few decades.”

Suzanne Pollak and Dmitriy Shapiro contributed to this report.

jmarks@washingtonjewishweek.com

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